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Hudson Valley News

Hudson Valley LGBTQ Pride March To Celebrate A Milestone

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The Hudson Valley LGBTQ Pride March and Festival takes place Sunday in the Ulster County village where same-sex marriage ceremonies were performed 10 years ago. The grand marshal of the pride march is the founder of the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide, a man Newsweek and The Daily Beast once dubbed “the godfather of gay marriage.” 

Village of New Paltz Mayor Jason West presided over 25 same-sex marriages February 27, 2004. New York State did not recognize the marriages, but New Paltz became a driving force behind the gay marriage movement nationwide. In June 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York.

“I was actually amazed that it happened so rapidly, to be honest with you. I mean, we’re talking, what, seven years, which is a very short time in cultural change,” says McHugh. “And, so, it actually was pretty amazing. It’s not something I ever thought would happen in my lifetime.”

That’s Ulster County resident Suzanne McHugh. She and AnnaMae Schuler were married in New Paltz in 2004, and married again five months after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

“I’ve been through a lot of cultural changes in my life,” McHugh says. “For instance, I was almost thrown out of college for being a lesbian. I got called into the Dean of Women’s office and she said, ‘I hear one more rumor about you and you’re out’.”

That was at then Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania. McHugh says she kept very quiet after that and graduated in 1970. Now, more than four decades later, she and Schuler will serve as Pride co-grand marshals in New Paltz on Sunday. The grand marshal is Evan Wolfson, founder and president of New York City-based Freedom to Marry.

“Of course, it’s a great honor to be chosen as grand marshal and to be able to celebrate the tenth anniversary of New Paltz’s statement in support of the freedom to marry in the form of the marriages that were celebrated then and the contribution that that made to the national conversation that in turn has yielded so much momentum and progress as we’ve won the freedom to marry in New York and 18 other states, and are building toward winning marriage nationwide,” says Wolfson.

Wolfson, named one of "the 100 most influential people in the world” by Time in 2004, talks about how the events in New Paltz sparked national change.

“What was important about the marriage ceremonies that took place 10 years ago in New Paltz and the personal statements that people were making is that they broke the silence, and they talked about their lives, their love, why they wanted to share in the freedom to marry,” Wolfson says. “And non-gay allies also spoke up and said this is important as a matter of fairness, as a matter of living up to our country’s promise. And although it didn’t survive legally at that point, it was an example of how by talking about why marriage matters, by asking others to think it through, we could change hearts and minds in a way that would change the climate in a way that would lead decision makers to change the law. And so it’s an example of what we need to keep doing because we still, of course, do not yet have the freedom to marry in 31 states.” 

Schuler, who is approaching 70 years old, says the practical matter of benefits, like health care coverage spouses share, are important, especially as one grows older.

“And you don’t think about that when your 40 and 50, but you start to think about it when you’re approaching 60 and you go, damn, I want what the other part of the world has. It’s going to be a struggle when on my micro, little pension. My pension is $84 a month. It doesn’t go very far.”

Meanwhile, Wolfson cites the advances since the New Paltz same-sex marriage ceremonies.

“We now have 19 states, including New York, in which same-sex couples can share in the freedom, to marry, plus our nation’s capital, the District of Columbia,” Wolfson says. “That’s about 44 percent of the American public now lives in a state where gay people can marry, up from zero a decade ago, up from zero at the time of the New Paltz marriage ceremonies.”

Sean Eldridge, a Democrat running for the 19th congressional district seat, is married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

“This Sunday my husband and I are very much looking forward to participating in the parade,” says Eldridge. “We’re going to be marching and celebrating with everyone else and it should be a great event. I think this is a great moment to pause and celebrate the progress that we’ve made. This is going to be about the three-year anniversary of having passed marriage equality in New York State, which is something that I was proud to be part of. And for me, it’s about my two-year anniversary of actually being married in New York State, so there’s a lot to celebrate.”

He calls Wolfson the founder of the marriage equality movement. Eldridge once worked for Freedom to Marry, first as communications director, then as political director.

“I met Evan when I was a student at law school. I was at Columbia Law School in December of 2009 when we failed to pass the marriage equality bill in the New York state Senate,” says Eldridge. “And I met Evan then and he really inspired me to get involved in the movement.”

Wolfson, who during the 1990s served as co-counsel in the Hawaii marriage case that launched the ongoing movement for the freedom to marry, discusses why he thinks legalizing same-sex marriage has gained momentum.

“When we didn’t yet have the freedom to marry it was easier for the anti-gay opponents to give people all kinds of scary rhetoric, and for people to worry about what might happen, and to not fully understand the importance of ending marriage discrimination,” says Wolfson. “But once we won the freedom to marry in the first state, then the next state, and the next, people began to see with their own eyes families helped and no one hurt. The gays didn’t use up all the marriage licenses. Nothing was taken away from anyone.”

Sponsored and produced by the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, the Pride March begins with a rally at noon at New Paltz Middle School, and steps off at 1 p.m. Sunday’s events are the culmination of Hudson Valley LGBTQ Pride Week.

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